To coincide with Japanese born, Australian based ceramic artist, Keiko Matsui’s latest solo exhibition Functional Objects at Small Spaces in Sydney (9th to the 30th of September), I have decide to write my very first ceramics post. As a keen collector of studio ceramics - and simple monochromatic bottle and bowl shapes in particular, I am a sucker for Keiko’s work.
While her cut and delicately altered southern ice porcelain forms have evolved partly with inevitable influences from Australian ceramicists such as Prue Venables her work retains an undeniable connection to her cultural roots. The result is a unique style of work that is delicate but tactile and unmistakably her own.
Keiko predominantly produces tableware in Australian Southern Ice, Les Blakebrough's Cool ice or Superior White porcelain. Her refined aesthetic frees her bowls, plates and vases so that they perform equally well as sculptural objects, exhibiting a gentle purity. Keiko also works in stoneware for certain wheel thrown and slab constructed work. These pieces reveal an earthy, slightly rustic quality in comparison to her finer porcelain objects.
Keiko does produce pieces created specifically as sculpture but in a form of reverse engineering she cant help giving them a function - even if it is just a tiny slot to hold a branch or flower stem.
Moving to Australia in 1999, Keiko studied fine arts between 2003 and 2005 at the National Art School in Sydney and went on to complete an honours degree there in 2006. Having been involved in dozens of group shows all over Australia between 2003 and 2011, she was invited to hold her first solo show called “Contained” at STURT Gallery in Mittagong, NSW (Australia) in 2012 and has produced one solo show at each year since.
Up until late 2011 Keiko’s studio was in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Chippendale but due to the fact that this studio was only able to accommodate a small electric kiln, she made the move to Umina Beach on the NSW Central Coast in 2012. Her new studio is positively rural in comparison to her old shop front location and reinforces her deep appreciation of nature. “I am inspired by some aspects of culture and all aspects of nature” she wrote in 2011. “Clay is the most versatile medium for me. It changes and surprises you with firing and glazing. I also physically enjoy touching clay, the process is very meditative. Carrying on an ancient tradition in an ever-changing world is very grounding”. Influenced by the controlled styling of the Japanese flower arranging art, Ikebana, Keiko finds it hard not to think of how flowers may sit in her vases and bottles as she is making them. She has also worked with Ikebana artist Setsuko Yanagisawa on a number of occasions to create a meeting of their two art forms. For more on this side of Keiko's work visit her website here.
While I was looking through old blog posts by Keiko while researching this post, I came across a reference to the 1962 visit to Australia by iconic British studio potter, Bernard Leach. An extract from an essay written by Leach in the very first issue of Pottery in Australia magazine, eloquently sums up the predicament for all potters who strive for something more than basic functionality. Ceramics are rarely regarded as achieving the dizzying heights of ‘art’ unless they are either highly intricate / decorative or in some way conceptual, yet what Bernard Leach identified over half a century ago, is that divisions between all artistic expressions are irrelevant and unnecessary. So while Keiko and many other ceramic artists / potters may create simple, highly functional objects, it is the subtle beauty that they bring to those objects that really counts.
"Let me say at once in Japan they laugh at this division. Art is art, or it is nothing. It is an expression of the delight in man, in beauty, in things: and if that vitality, that delight is apparent, it does not matter whether it is in fine art, or applied art, or crafts. We have had too much of this division. It is part of the result of the industrial revolution which was a kind of splitting of the personality of man into what you must do for utilitarian and practical reasons, and what you would like to do if you have time and money".
Bernard Leach from Pottery in Australia Volume 1, MAY, 1962.
Keiko Matsui has been the recipient of numerous awards for her work including the 2014 Gosford Art Prize (Ceramics), the 2013 Clunes Ceramic Award - Emerging Artist Prize and the 2012 Gosford Art Prize (Ceramics). She was also one of four finalists in the 2013 Vitrify Alcorso Ceramic Award.